Twenty-One Runners Die During 100-Kilometer Ultramarathon in China

Twenty-one runners died during the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k in China on May 22, 2021.

By on May 22, 2021

Last updated June 3, 2021.

Multiple Chinese state media have confirmed that 21 runners died in a storm during the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k, which started Saturday morning, May 22, 2021, in China’s Gansu Province, located in northwest China. Additionally, eight runners were injured, but are recovering.

The Yellow River Stone Forest 100k Incident and Victims

Reports state that the race took place at the Yellow River Stone Forest tourist site, which includes terrain that’s both mountainous and exposed, and a large storm hit early afternoon Saturday, suddenly engulfing the race course in rain, hail, extreme wind, and temperatures at the freezing point. Multiple reports indicate that the wind was blowing hard enough that it was difficult to stand or walk.

When multiple racers went missing from the course and calls for help went out on Chinese social-media platforms, the race was halted and a complex search-and-rescue mission ensued. According to Chinese media, some 1,200 personnel were called in to search for the runners who went missing during the storm. The search continued overnight Saturday night and into Sunday morning.

By Sunday morning Chinese time, media confirmed that 21 runners of the 100-kilometer race’s 172 participants perished in the storm while eight more were injured, making this the largest tragedy to ever hit the sport of ultrarunning. All participants have reportedly been accounted for. It is believed that runners suffered from hypothermia and related medical issues.

According to the Chinese website as well as Hong Kong running store Gone Running, elite Chinese runner Jing Liang, who had won all three previous editions of this race, was among those who died. His most recent top international result was a second place at the 2020 Vibram Hong Kong 100k. We interviewed him after he placed second at that race in 2019.

According to Chinese media, also among the deceased are:

  • Peng-Fei Cao — He finished fourth at this race in 2020
  • Guan-Jun Huang — He was a top Chinese Paralympic runner
  • Yin-Bin Huang  — He was a rising trail running star in China

We have not yet been able to locate a full list of those whose lives were lost in this incident.

The local government, also the event organizer, says a full investigation is underway.

On June 2nd, 2021 the Chinese General Administration of Sport (GAS) announced a suspension of all trail races, ultramarathons, and other “high-risk” events in China.

Background Information on the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k Incident

We can confirm that the race organization required runners to carry the following mandatory kit:

  • Race bib
  • Timing chip
  • GPX file/route
  • GPS tracker
  • One headlamp
  • Water container with one-liter capacity
  • Whistle
  • Space blanket
  • Cell phone

We can additionally confirm the race organization recommended but did not require runners to carry these items:

  • Electrolyte drinks, water, and energy supplies
  • Sun hat and sunglasses
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Buff
  • Trekking poles
  • Jacket
  • First-aid kit

Read more about the race’s mandatory and recommended kit as well as other information and rules at the race organization’s website.

First-Hand Reports of the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k Incident

This incredible and heartbreaking first-person account, published on the website, explains the situation in detail. To summarize this runner’s account, the weather was cool to cold with noticeable wind as the race started on Saturday morning local time, but it worsened significantly around 1 p.m. and the severe weather lasted until about 5 p.m. At this time, most runners were between 21 and 30 kilometers into the race. This section of the course included an approximately 1,000-meter climb over extremely rugged terrain where you needed to use your hands at times. As runners climbed this section, they encountered severe wind, rain, and cold temperatures. Some runners retreated backward on the course, including the runner who authored this account, and/or took shelter in low points and a cabin next to the course. Many runners helped each other, working together to shelter in place and/or retreat backward on the course. Some runners experienced additional injuries due to falling and/or being knocked over by the wind on the rugged terrain. Search-and-rescue personnel soon arrived on the scene to begin rescuing the injured.

Another first person account, published on Chinese social-media platform Sina Weibo, is from runner Xiao-Tao Zhang, who reports he was running among the top-six men when the weather turned. In summary, he encountered the storm between checkpoints two and three, which for him was rain, hail, very high winds, and cold temperatures. When the weather became unbearable, he says he hit the SOS button on his GPS tracker. Soon he passed out, and woke some hours later in a cave where he’d been carried by a local sheep herder. The herder had made a fire and wrapped him in a quilt. Other runners had also taken refuge there. Zhang believes he is the only survivor among the top-six men with whom he’d been running near when the storm began.

China’s People’s Daily has published a profile of the sheep herder, Keming Zhu, who saved the lives of Zhang and five other runners by providing refuge in a cave he’d previously stocked with rations in case of an emergency while he was out herding on the mountain. Zhu said he’d planned to watch the race on Saturday from up on the mountain, but the weather turned starting around 10 a.m. and he sought shelter in the cave. As the storm raged outside, five runners found the cave while trying to escape the elements. He welcomed them in, made more fire, and shared his rations. When he went outside to call in the emergency in progress on his cell phone, he noticed an unconscious Zhang on the ground, whom Zhu carried into the cave. Zhu says rescuers came to the aid of the six runners in the cave around 11 p.m. on Saturday evening.

Also published on Weibo is this runner account as told to China’s Sky Eye News. The horrific narrative describes the weather as so terrible during the storm that even a military coat wouldn’t have been protective enough. The female runner said the wind was blowing hard enough to knock her over, that her emergency blanket was blown away by the wind, and that she felt her body shaking hard and her extremities become stiff from the cold. The runner describes laying on her stomach on the ground for a period of time somewhere after the 31k mark on the course as the only means of protecting herself from the wind in the open, exposed area. At this point, she used her phone to put voice messages into a group on the Chinese social-media platform WeChat saying how severe the conditions were. In this group were members of the race organization as well as other runners and she hoped her messages would cause runners to turn around and go downhill. She says she eventually got up when two other runners went past her and encouraged her to try moving, and together the three of them were able to go downhill. She describes seeing other runners laying on the ground, having their own medical emergencies, as she was walking downhill. Sometime after that, they met up with rescue personnel who put them in an ambulance and took them to a temporary relief point in a local village where there was a fire and warm food.

Additionally, multiple runners wrote on Chinese social-media platforms that the super-strong winds shredded their emergency blankets.

Photos circulating on Chinese social-media platforms show runners in a mixture of clothing before the race, during the race before the storm, during the storm, and after the race in shelters, ambulances, relief points, and, so sadly, deceased. Many runners are shown wearing a light rain jacket, like what ultrarunners typically carry and wear in races, over t-shirts or long-sleeve shirts. Some wearing t-shirts have what look to be arm warmers. The majority of runners are in running shorts, while some are wearing pants or a combination of shorts and knee-high running socks or calf sleeves which nearly cover their legs. The photos show a good number of the runners using emergency blankets.

Yellow River Stone Forest 100k Incident Reaction and Investigation

On Sunday and Monday in China, athletes of all kinds are speaking out to local media and on social-media platforms to voice criticism of the race administration’s lack of organization and emergency preparedness. Examples of their criticism include not checking runners for their mandatory equipment and a slow response time when runners began asking the organization for help during the storm.

According to Chinese media, at an emergency meeting held on Sunday evening in response to the tragedy, the country’s sport governing body, the General Administration of Sport, announced an incoming overhaul of the country’s sports safety and risk management procedures. We don’t have specific details on what this means yet.

On Tuesday in China, multiple state-run media announced that a working group of investigators is making its probe into the incident, and the group now includes both race-organization experts and meteorologists.

Media also said on Tuesday that about half of the families of the 21 deceased runners have reached a compensation agreement with the race organization, and that funds will come jointly from the race organization, contractors, and the local government.

Also on Tuesday, media stated that seven of the eight injured in the incident have been released from the hospital, and the one remaining patient is in stable condition.

More Information on the Yellow River Stone Forest 100k Incident

These articles provide more information:

We offer our most sincere condolences to all involved in this terrible incident. We grieve with you.

[Editor’s Note: We’ll continue to update this story as more information becomes available. Out of respect for the deceased and because limited information is currently available, we’ve turned off comments for this article. Thank you to several friends across Asia and Mandarin Chinese speakers in the U.S. for assisting in research for this article.]

Jing Liang during the 2019 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar

Meghan Hicks

Meghan Hicks is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor from 2013 through mid-2023, when she stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.